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Should We Try to Live Forever?

image of silhouette walking long incline of empty space

We all want to live longer. Every year, billions of dollars are spent prolonging our lives, and we are still waiting for the pill that cures aging once and for all.

But if we lived forever, wouldn’t we just end up bored and depressed? Think about the goal you’re most invested in right now, whether that is getting a degree, searching for a romantic partner, raising children, or advancing your career. Part of what makes this goal compelling is that it has an end date, a point at which it will have been accomplished. But if our lives continued on forever, then eventually we would have no goals left to accomplish, leaving us apathetic, unmotivated, and potentially downright miserable.

A life worth living, though, is not merely the sum of our projects. Instead, there are certain things we enjoy doing simply for their own sake. These things include spending time with friends and family, reading a good book, listening to music, or going for a run – activities that do not cease to be fulfilling once they are accomplished. If not for our biological limitations, they could potentially go on without end.

Longevity is one of the most recent crazes in Silicon Valley, with leading figures pouring cash into extending their lifespans. Jeff Bezos and Sam Altman have both given millions of dollars to longevity start-ups, and Bryan Johnson, founder of e-commerce company Braintree, spends millions of dollars every year so that he can be functionally 18 years old again.

With all this money being spent on longevity, the science may not be far behind. David Sinclair, a longevity researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that current medical advances will allow some of us to live to at least 150. Some of these advances are thought to have the potential to not only slow death, but to reverse aging altogether.

This all raises an obvious question: Should we want to live forever? Most have assumed the answer is an obvious yes. Along with all of the current life-extending research, most major religions – including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Mormonism – include the promised reward of an eternal afterlife. If given the choice, it seems like most of us would prefer to live forever.

Of course, there are circumstances that could make immortality unappealing. If I am chronically ill or depressed, then living forever might look more like a curse than a blessing. But assuming that we are in good mental and physical health, most people think that eternal life sounds like a pretty good deal.

But if we really think about it, would living forever actually be a good thing? Philosopher Bernard Williams thinks the answer is no. He considers the story of Elina Makropulos, the protagonist of the Czech opera The Makropulos Affair. After imbibing a potion that allows her to live for 300 more years, Elina goes on to become a widely renowned vocalist. Nevertheless, when it comes time to take the potion again, Elina is depressed and apathetic, and while she still fears death, she no longer desires to go on living.

Will the same inevitably happen to us? The long-term projects that make our lives meaningful – education, career, and family – could all be accomplished in a never-ending life. But once we get our degrees, climb the corporate ladder, and raise a family, what would we do then?

Even if we did have projects that couldn’t be completed in such a (relatively) short period of time, this probably wouldn’t help. We would either ultimately succeed at those goals and still have an infinite life ahead of us, or we would eventually recognize that some of our goals are impossible to achieve, an equally depressing realization.

But there is more to life than projects with definitive end dates. Consider some of the things you like to do for fun, like eating out with friends, attending local music festivals, or going for bike rides. Contrasted with projects that have some sort of end or telos, such activities are “atelic” in that they do not have any point where they will have been achieved.

Basing our happiness on project-based goals is likely to make us unhappy both right now as well as in an infinite future.  In his book Midlife, MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya points out that if our happiness is determined by telic projects and endeavors, then we will always be either striving for yet another accomplishment or aimless and depressed after we reach our goal.

The moral of this contrast is obvious. We should focus on deriving more of our happiness, not from the goals we accomplish, but the activities that we enjoy doing just for their own sake.

But along with offering us guidance on how to live in the present, the difference between telic and atelic activities explains why living forever could actually be a good thing. Our lives are a mix of both kinds of activities, but by and large, our goal-based projects are undertaken in service of the things that we enjoy doing for their own sake.

When asked what we would do if money were no object, many of us respond with some kind of atelic pursuit or activity. We mourn the loss of the freedom we had when we were young adults, able to simply enjoy our lives without the weight of so many goal-based responsibilities. And maybe that’s what living forever would be like, a return to a simpler, less demanding way of existing in the world.

Aging and Blaming in the Criminal Justice System

Photograph of a long hall of cells with light and a dome at the end

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

A recent study in the medical journal The Lancet suggests that, if trends hold, 50% of babies born today will live to be over 100 years old.  Though long life is typically thought of as a good thing, some of our ordinary practices may need to change to track philosophical and practical challenges posed by longer life spans.  In particular, we need to reflect on whether our attitudes about blame and punishment need to be adjusted. For example, last year, John “Sonny” Franzese was released from an American prison at the age of 100.  Franzese was sentenced to fifty years for a bank robbery. The unique challenges and philosophical questions posed by extreme old age cast the moral permissibility of incarcerating the elderly into question.

Arguably, we need to think critically about duration of punishment. The criminal justice system in The United States relies heavily on retributivism as a justification for sentencing.  The concept of blame is central to a philosophy of retributivist justice. As an act of retribution, criminals are often given multiple life sentences or are sentenced to a number of years in prison that far exceeds the amount of time that criminal could reasonably expect to be alive. There is room for debate concerning the usefulness of blame as a moral concept.  Supposing, however, that blame is an important evaluative attitude in our moral lives, there is good reason for reflection on whether and under what conditions other moral considerations are more important than whether an agent is morally blameworthy. As lifespans increase, a life sentence becomes a still more serious proposition. At what point, if any, does respect for human dignity outweigh our retributivist concerns to ensure that a blameworthy agent is held responsible for their actions?

Intuitively, regardless of the nature of the crime, there are some upper limits to how long it is appropriate to punish someone.  For example, in his paper Divine Evil, David Lewis points out that it could never be just to punish a person infinitely for a finite crime.  Of course, in the context of the paper, Lewis is arguing that an omnibenevolent God couldn’t sentence a person to an eternity of torment in hell for a finite sin, but the main point here holds.  If human beings were immortal, it would be unjust to hold them in prison forever with no chance of release as punishment for a single crime or series of crimes.  That suggests that there is a time at which continuing to punish a blameworthy person is no longer morally justified. Some countries, like Portugal, Norway, and Spain, don’t sentence convicted criminals to life in prison at all.  In many other European nations, a life sentence always includes the possibility of parole. The understanding seems to be that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is a human rights violation. Even if the United States does not come around to thinking about the issue in this way, as human lifespans continue to get longer, it’s important to identify the point at which punishment is no longer morally permissible.

For retributivism to be justified, our assessments of blame must be apt.  For our judgments of blameworthiness to be apt, it must be the case that we are blaming one and the same person who engaged in the wrongdoing for which they are being blamed.  Increased lifespans muddy the waters of identity judgment. An extremely elderly person may have little to no psychological continuity with the being they were when they engaged in wrongdoing.  In his paper The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, Bernard Williams argues that if a being were immortal, or even if that being were to live an exceptionally long life, that being would either become extremely bored or would change so much that they would no longer be justified in judging future experiences as their own experiences.  Living a flourishing human life is a matter of setting goals and completing projects.  The kinds of goals we set goes a long way to establishing who we are as people. If we continue to set goals of the same type, Williams argues, we will inevitably get bored.  If we set different goals, we will eventually become totally different people, unrecognizable to our former selves.

Aging criminals aren’t immortal, but as human lifespans continue to increase, it may well be the case that they resemble their former selves in very few respects.  If this is the case, it is far from clear that our identity judgments are justified or that our assessments of blameworthiness are apt. This recognition should also cause us to reevaluate our goals when it comes to punishment.  As prisoners age, should our philosophy of punishment still be retributivism?

If blame is a useful moral concept, it is, at least in part, because a moral community that makes use of blame has a mechanism for encouraging bad actors to change their behavior in the future.  To successfully bring about this change in behavior, it is important that the behavior in question is a salient thread in the life narrative of the wrongdoer. Once enough time has past such that this is no longer true, it’s possible that continuing to blame a wrongdoer no longer serves this important social function in our moral community.